John Adams Appoints the First Customs Agent of Frontier Detroit, Beginning That City’s Rise as an American Commercial Power

A very rare early frontier government appointment

Detroit was the goal of various U.S. campaigns during the American Revolution, but logistical difficulties in the North American frontier and opposition from the Native American allies of Great Britain would prevent any armed U.S. force from reaching the Detroit area. In the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Great Britain ceded territory...

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John Adams Appoints the First Customs Agent of Frontier Detroit, Beginning That City’s Rise as an American Commercial Power

A very rare early frontier government appointment

Detroit was the goal of various U.S. campaigns during the American Revolution, but logistical difficulties in the North American frontier and opposition from the Native American allies of Great Britain would prevent any armed U.S. force from reaching the Detroit area. In the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Great Britain ceded territory that included Detroit to the newly recognized United States, though in reality it remained under British control. Great Britain continued to trade with and defend its native allies in the area, and supplied local tribes with weapons to harass American settlers and soldiers. In 1794 the Jay Treaty was signed which required the British to leave the area. That same year a Native American alliance that had received some support and encouragement from the British was decisively defeated by General Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio. Wayne negotiated the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 with many of these native nations, in which tribes ceded the area of Fort Detroit to the United States. The British left in 1796.

At that moment, when Detroit became an American frontier possession, it was composed of a few hundred people, some stores, and a couple of thousand people in the region surrounding it. Two-thirds were French. So Detroit found itself suddenly a major port of entry for goods between the U.S. and Canada.

The U.S. had already a well-established system of revenue collection based on import duties, that had been set in place by President George Washington and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. By the act of June 7, 1794, an additional duty of five per cent was laid upon foreign importations, and by the act of March 7, 1799, several collection districts were fully defined, and in this act notice was first taken of the northern and western frontier.

By virtue of this act, five frontier ports were established, the two farthest west being the Port of Detroit and another at the tip of Michigan.

Document signed, Washington, January 7, 1800, appointing Matthew Ernest to be the “Inspector of the Revenue for the Port of Detroit.” Ernest was also given the position of Collector. The United States began imposing duties in Detroit during the late spring of that year.

The addition of this customs agent and the adoption of import duties meant rising prices and more opportunities for profit. This was the start of Detroits commercial rise.

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